The Ribbon and the Lightning Rod
November 25 - December 22, 2010
Remarks on Melanie Authier’s Radically Improvisatory Art
“My music doesn't have any real time, no metric time. It has time, but not in the sense that you can time it. It's more like breathing - a natural, freer time. People have forgotten how beautiful it is to be natural. Even in love.”
-- Ornette Coleman, The Harmolodic Manifesto (1)
To suggest that Melanie Authier is the Roy Hobbs of painting might seem a stretch to baseball and painting mavens alike. But there is an expectation growing out there in the bleachers, I think, that when Authier steps into the batter’s box of painting with the game on the line, she is probably going to hit that ball right out of the park. Maybe it’s because she is always thinking outside the box when she paints. In any case, I have never witnessed her striking out – or painting herself into a proverbial corner, either. (A bold claim, perhaps, but a true one.) Well, painting is not a baseball diamond (unless you are executing lozenges or making a category mistake), but where her almost mystical abilities as a painter are concerned, it might just as well be. I want to talk here about why.
I have spoken elsewhere of her considerable and, in this interpreter’s considered opinion, uncanny skill at improvisation. In fact, Authier is an improvisatory painter sans pareil. Improvisation is, for her, as necessary as breathing. This skill insulates her paintings from the ever-present specter of calcification and stylistic sameness – to which so many capable painters succumb -- keeping them individualized, vibrant and, well, vivacious. In fact, improvisation at this level is the anti-embalming fluid of painting. It prevents vitrification, keeps hope alive -- and the future wholly open.
The ambiguous deep space in her paintings is akin to the cadenza section of a concerto – a sacred place where she can demonstrate those improvisatory skills of hers like a gifted instrumental soloist. However, unlike a soloist who simply embroiders a pre-composed cadenza with negligible changes in the delivery; Authier recognizes no limits on what is possible and goes hog wild, keeping her foot on the accelerator and the ‘blank spot’ left on the original score of painting is handily laden with all manner of deft and crisp contrapuntal play.
Yes, Authier fills that ‘blank space’ of painting like a true adept with a whole repertoire of painting stratagems, feints and gestures very much her own. You could never mistake her work for that of any other painter, and yet each painting she makes has its own multi-facetted personae. In the recent paintings executed for her FOFA exhibition, she demonstrates once again her phenomenal resilience to taxonomy – and a wholesale resistance to stasis. In fact, these traits are enviable honour badges, and not just in these paintings, but in her corpus since its inception.
Replete with cascading tropes deftly lifted from both figuration and representation, her paintings have dovetailing continuities that render them immune from any erstwhile order of pigeonholing or taxonomy – or, on their extravagant insides, sclerosis.
Perhaps this is why experiencing her paintings is like witnessing something truly primeval in nature, say the geological birth pangs of rock crystal at the heart of the abyss or the fire on the face of the deep before the earth was made. They evince a real sense of geomania. Those quartzite points that rule the upper quadrant of Anchor (acrylic on canvas, 72" x 84", 2010) and which are opened up like diamond facets in Monster?Anthem (acrylic on canvas, 72" x 84", 2010) are not just clever iconographic markers – they are almost archetypal and perhaps signal the reinvention of painting itself.
Authier imports aspects of the environing world into her abstracts while mixing and matching techniques endemic to representational, expressionistic, soft-edge and hard-edge abstract paintings. She demonstrates rare openness and refuses to segregate or close-off potentialities in the micro-structures of her paintings. Instead, she demonstrates a phenomenally restless spirit and radically multiplies and divides her paintings’ structures —and exemplifies. This extraordinary porosity while she is dancing as fast as she can is a continuing hallmark of her work. Think of her as a whirling dervish – given the ecstatic dancing and whirling of her gestural strokes and sundry structural maneuverings, their painterly velocity and confluence of opposites -- of painting’s present tense and future promise.
I have cited elsewhere the relevance of soprano sax giant Steve Lacy when writing on her work as an ongoing improvisatory high-wire act. However, when I look at her new works I also think of Ornette Coleman’s magnificent Tao of Mad Phat (1993), a set of lengthy, live and altogether lithe improvisations in the studio; two pieces recorded under the leadership of jazz pianist Lennie Tristano: Intuition and Digression, both recorded in 1949 with a sextet including sax players Konitz and Marsh and, from 1954, Shelly Manne’s Abstract No. 1 with Shorty Rogers and Jimmy Giuffre which was freely improvised and stands as a palpable beacon of what improvisation promises and can still deliver.
Talking about improvisation in painting now and previous work she admires, Authier has spoken to me movingly of her great love for the paintings of Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner. On my side, I might also cite the work of Grace Hartigan, one of the finest American Abstract Expressionist painters of the New York School in the 1950s. But, of course, Authier’s abstracts do not in any way resemble the works of Mitchell, Krasner or Hartigan. They are as different from the works of those artists as they are from one another. We never find Authier freely quoting other painters – or herself, for that matter -- and the absence of quotation marks in what are perfectly worked and radically improvised fields is a cause for celebration and continuing epiphanies.
Authier is a savant when it comes to connecting all the conceivable dots, but she is just as able at generating deliberate ruptures when stripping the sutures out of paintings that then seem cut from whole cloth but still deliver a rare whallop to the solar plexus. Both continuity and disruption rule here. She wants the spectator to enjoy not a sedate vantage point in space from a plush chair but a perspective from the top of the bandstand itself. She wants us to be startled out of any possible complacency, and morphs that chair into a trampoline. Continually kept on our toes, even to the threshold of disorientation, her paintings build up a vertiginous momentum for us that is, at a certain instant, simply inescapable, pulling us over the edge of a vision as frenzied in one sense as it is ordered in another. Here is a painter who is not allergic to or afraid of excess. Indeed, she intuitively understands just how transporting pure excess can be when in the right hands, when it signals and portends nothing less than an otherworldly state of grace.
Like Grace Hartigan before her, Authier never breaks entirely with the figurative tradition in her abstracts, and this feeds her morphologies with magically amuletic souvenirs of the Real. Her paintings are very much anchored in process, and they are never slick or decorative in their mien. Perhaps it is her methodological use of counterpoint as a processual ethic that assures this. Perhaps it is her refusal of repeating the archaic language of yesterday’s abstraction. Because, make no mistake, these paintings are rooted in both the present and future tenses.
Consider The Lush Rebel Orchestra (acrylic on canvas, 72" x 84", 2010), an anthem of Supermodernity to be sure, which is like nothing else we have seen before. This painting is like a portent of the future nipping at our heels. In crafting polyphonic compositions that seem at one moment wildly askew and, at the next, powerfully segued, and which are always rife with archetypal forms and powerfully differentiated flotillas of vectorial gestures, Authier is able to have her cake and eat it, too. And with a palette that is breathtaking in its audacity, hallucinatory in its effects, she hooks us from the proverbial getgo.
I was looking at one of her paintings not so long ago and I suddenly saw superimposed in my mind’s eye Wassily Kandinsky’s Improvisation 31 (1913). There was no backwards quotation or echo or enervating referent on her part. It was rather a simple recognition on my part of what she is doing vis a vis what he achieved there, in a painting that is also known as Sea Battle. The latter title evokes his abstracted vision of two tall ships launching cannonballs at one another, and how he transformed all that into pure flux, froth and ecstasy of interactive movement. Consider now Authier’s Anchor (2010) with its phantasmatic castles in the air, birth pangs of mountains, and festooned with enticing streamers, ribbons and bows of pure pigment. She, too, looks to the world as it is and finds inspiration for her maverick visions of what it can be, installing in her abstracts all the glorious hurly-burly of the life-world, without apology, disclaimers, false modesty -- or enervating restraint.
It’s funny but if you’ve seen and think on the film version of Malamud’s The Natural with its beguiling cinematography replete with images of water, sunsets, circles, Lucifer, Christ, Judas, temptress, trickster, and the task and the triumph, avowal and overcoming, well, Authier’s remarkable paintings contain all these things – and more. They are tough and complex and lovingly syncopated. They are driven, anti-decorative and forever in flux. Even at their most alluring and seductive, they are tough, tumultuous, and holistic. They seize upon and give form to wild raptures that sustain the optic that would know them while subverting sundry orthodoxies of seeing with sensuous abandon. What I mean to say is that they are felt paeans to human life and its myriad struggles. They are also, of course, inordinately well made. No exaggeration on my part to suggest that Melanie Authier is indeed The Natural in the game of contemporary Canadian painting.
James D. Campbell
1. Ornette Coleman, The Harmolodic Manifesto (OrnetteColeman.com, online text, n.p., n.d.).